Downward spiral: how addiction decimated a Wyoming family

3 months, 29 days ago

The nations suicide rate is three times “the member states national” average and 16% of its people experience alcoholism or addiction. Alexs family are the faces behind the figures

Alex remembers taking his wife to ensure a psychic. The clairvoyant came highly recommended by her doctor. Danielle was struggling. Pete, her son from a previous relationship, had killed himself in 2004. He was merely 13.

Alex drove 180 miles west from Rock Springs, Wyoming, where the couple lived, to Rainbow Gardens in Ogden, Utah. They drove through Sweetwater Countys extraterrestrial rock formations, its oil and gas fields, its mines. There was nothing to consider for miles but sage-covered high desert, a landscape of stark beauty and eerie desolation.

The clairvoyant told them that some peoples spirits were solitary, and that other people occupy and leave this world in clans. Pete wouldnt have learned anything new in this life, the clairvoyant continued. He needed to die and wait for his clan to succumbs so they could all start life over with him.

In the years that followed, one after another of Alexs clan died.

Danielles sister died from a prescription drug overdose in 2009. In 2015, Danielle died, following 15 years of opioid addiction, and that same year, her mother succumbed to complications related to alcohol abuse.

For years now, the US has been engulfed in an unprecedented epidemic. Americas white suicide rate is the highest it has been in 30 years, with Wyoming resulting at three times the national average. While the life expectancy of Americans of coloring has increased endlessly, the mortality rate of non-Hispanic, middle-aged whites particularly those with little formal education has risen dramatically.

In Wyoming, the number of people with diabetes has risen steadily, and heart disease is expected to affect four times as many people in 2030 as in 2010. The Center for Integrated Behavioral Health Policy, a research center based at George Washington University, estimates that more than 16% of Wyomingites suffer from alcoholism and addiction to illicit drugs.

But Wyoming is not alone with this problem: the national median is just under 14%. One change is, however, that in the second least populated country in the US, mental healthcare can be hard to come by. Wyoming has one of the lowest number of psychiatrists and the fewest child and adolescent psychiatrists per capita.

The hypothesis surrounding the causes of addiction are differed: childhood abuse and forget, trauma, mental illness and incarceration of a mother are often blamed. Experts point to the role of epigenetics, the inheritability of genetic code and gene expres. Inner isolation and the lack of a supportive community also appear to play a role. Family systems are more fragmented today than the latter are 50 years ago, and the church, which used to be the center of peoples communal and spiritual life, has lost its importance for many Americans.

Addiction and suicide are democratic, swallowing up individuals across all education and income levels. Americas medical and mental healthcare and Veteran Administration systems are struggling to address problems that may have been averted by strong family and community systems in the past. The narrative of Alex and his family illustrates how a series of tragic events can snowball to claim an entire household. Suicide, mental illness and craving are never due to merely one cause; they are the results of a perfect storm.

Alex Alex in front of the trailer where Pete died. Photo: Sabine Heinlein

At 42, Alex is burly and almost bald. When I visit him around Christmas a few days before what would have been his stepson Petes 22 nd birthday he offers to take me on a tour of the places in Rock Springs that are connected to his familys downward spiral.

Clad in beige vinyl siding, the mobile home where Pete killed himself seems neat but impersonal. It hadnt yet snowed enough to sugarcoat the scenery. Alex tells me that Danielle wasnt able to return home after Petes suicide. She grabbed her pets and daughters and moved in with neighbours. The couple quickly decided to sell.

Trudging through snow under big gray skies that portend a storm, Alex and I visit Petes grave. Someone has put an artificial flower and a small American flag next to a piece of an antler. The antler is there because Pete was supposed to learn how to hunt that year. There is also an ashtray because Pete liked to smoking. Alex seems detached, and I ask him what he is feeling. He has come to terms with Petes suicide, he tells me. His mission is now to understand the forces that ravaged his family.

Danielle and Alex met in the mid-1 990 s. They were drawn to each other because they were both unique, as Alex puts it. Alex was shy he still is. One of Danielles limbs was stunted due to a birth defect, and she was supporting herself by working at a gas station.

The youngest of more than a dozen children from several different sets of mothers, Danielle was daddys daughter. But according to Alexandria, her longtime friend, her familys home was filled with emotional abuse. There was always sorrow and one craving after another, Alexandria remembers. The home was never clean, and her parents regulations were idiosyncratic. They gave her whatever she wanted. They didnt push her to do things for herself.

In elementary school, Danielles teachers and fellow students marveled at how fast she could get dressed. Though Danielle had only the one hand, she was faster than anyone else in her class. But in middle and high school, rewards became harder to achieve and expectations crumbled.

In seventh grade, Danielle got involved with the bad kids who hung out at a local gas station. Parties took place in the mountains, even in the middle of winter, and it was( and still is) common for kids to start drinking in their early teens. In rapid succession, Danielle had two children, Pete and Melissa, from two different fathers.

Then Alex came along.

I wasnt one of those arrogant assholes who exude so much confidence, Alex says. I have a soft spot for people who are handicapped or the underdog. Danielle was always smiling and happy, with a sense of sentence you can only get from being a mother. Im going to do it this style and no one can tell me different. She taught me that about myself.

Soon after the couple got married, Danielle insisted they follow their friend Alexandrias family to Louisiana. They took their new newborn daughter Tammy and Danielles eight-year-old son Pete with them. Seven-year-old Melissa stayed in Wyoming with her biological daddy, who was addicted to alcohol.

Things were drying up here, Alex remembers. I sold everything and chose, OK, for better or worse, here we go. But things were drying up down there, too. In Louisiana, there were additional obstacles. Louisiana is a buddy-buddy thing. If youre not Cajun, then youre a nobody. He acknowledges: Its the same here in Wyoming. Any outsider you look down on.

At humors objective, Alex joined the army. To his astonish, he enjoyed it. I was becoming something more than what I was, he explains. Growing up, every time I got a friend in school theyd move. The majority of my life I have been by myself.

For the first time ever, the lone wolf felt like part of a pack. His household was get a foothold in a more stable life, and things seemed to be looking up.

In May 2000, Alex was driving with his family. They had just bought carpeting for their home on the base because Danielle fretted the children would hurt themselves on the tiled floor. Seven months pregnant with Ashley, the couples second child, Danielle sat next to Alex. In the backseat were nine-year-old Pete and the couples newborn daughter Tammy.

Alex insured the traffic lights change to amber. He decided to stop. As soon as the car eased to a halting, he felt potential impacts of the loaded semi-trailer truck behind them. The children were fine, but Alex and Danielle suffered herniated disc in the neck.

It seemed like a big old snarl that started the snowball rolling down the hill until the big crash at the bottom, Alex says about the accident.

Alex and Danielle were both in severe ache, and doctors in Louisiana were quick to prescribe opioid analgesics. Alex cant recollect whether doctors ever told him or Danielle that the analgesics were addictive, but while he didnt like how hazy the medicines attained him feel, Danielle soon couldnt live without them.

Once, Danielle tried to go off the drugs cold turkey, ending up in the hospital. Physicians there said she could have killed herself. Thats when arrangements were made to send her to a[ rehab] facility, Alex remembers. But the program was only a week or two long, and Danielle, who seemed to be in constant ache, relapsed soon afterwards.

Alex Alex holding a family photo, back when he was in the army. Photograph: Sabine Heinlein

Both Alex and Alexandria wonder whether Danielle exaggerated how much ache she was in to get more narcotics, but they are careful about making assumptions. Danielle always seemed to feel every longing, every hurt, more intensely than others. Maybe she felt pain more strongly, too.

Alexs neck pain developed into migraines, and he was no longer be permitted to do the armys morning calisthenics. Once, while driving a truck, he blacked out. He came to on the wrong side of the road.

His military career stalled. He had become what his superior policeman called one of the broke-ass people. He explains: When you are injured, you are frowned upon. You are hazed. Because you are not up there doing everything with the big dogs.

Alexs second daughter, Ashley, was born two months after the accident, addicted to oxycodone. When she was just 24 hours old, Ashley stopped inhaling and almost died. Physicians dedicated her a Narcan injection, commonly used to treat withdrawal syndromes in babies exposed to opioids before birth. Suffering from withdrawal and in pain, the newborn cried all the time.

In 2001, Danielle had neck surgery, but her ache still didnt subside. Soon afterwards, she was back to spending much of her time in bed, high on medications. Alexandria, who more than once tried to talk to her about her craving, recollects. She never took responsibility for her own actions.[ Therapy] was scary. It was always somebody elses fault.

Alex was placed on desk duty. He couldnt believe how quickly the military had written him off. Instead of supporting him on his difficult journey, medical doctors started the process of medical discharge. Shortly after he was “lets get going”, his division shipped out to Iraq. I wasnt able to fulfill my investment. I felt like a piece of crap, Alex says.

In 2002, Danielle and Alex moved back to Rock Springs to be closer to their clan. Melissa, Danielles oldest daughter, was back in the picture, helping them raise her two young stepsisters.

With Alexs discharge from the army, Danielles spousal insurance was terminated, and due to her pre-existing conditions no insurance company would take her. Alex was paying more than $500 a month for Danielles narcotics. Eventually, a doctor set her on methadone a prescription analgesic more commonly known for helping heroin junkies detoxify as a less expensive alternative.

In 2006, Danielle and Alex received a quarter-million-dollar settlement from the accident. Alex maintained $10,000 to start a welding business. The rest he devoted to Danielle. Danielle hired a housekeeper, bought a doublewide trailer home and an SUV. She gave money to relatives, took her children on vacation and dragged Alex to the mall to buy $ 1,500 worth of clothes. Within a year she had blown all the money.

Rock Springs is three hours from the closest metropolitan area, Salt Lake City. But thats in good weather conditions. When it is snowing, it can take more than twice that long. During blizzards, I-8 0 sometimes shuts altogether.

A bust-and-boom town, Rock Springs wasnt reached as hard by the Great Depression as the rest of America; everybody still needed coal. The proud community had splendid gardens to grow their own veggies. Ethnic minorities put on culture events featuring food, drinkings and dances. Established as a safety net for employees, the Mutual Aid Society hosted balls, and Union Pacific organized parades and first assist competitors. The prevalent sentiment was: We built this community out of the desert, we made a great a home for ourselves says Brie Blasi, the executive director of the Sweetwater County Historical Museum.

It wasnt all rosy, however. Alex leads me to a big paint at the Rock Springs Library that depicts one of the most serious incidents of anti-immigrant violence in American history. While Rock Springs celebrates itself as Home of 56 Nationalities, it is anything but diverse, and not exactly known for being accepting of foreigners. Sweetwater County is 94% white, and its immigration history is fraught with alienation and bloodshed.

Years of unjust labor policies that favored whites and fomented xenophobic sentiments culminated in the 1885 Chinese Massacre, in which a mob of 150 white humen murdered at least 28 Chinese miners. Dozens more were injured, robbed and driven from their shacks at Bitter Creek.

How many white people were murdered? Alex asks the librarian. The answer is none. The Chinese didnt carry guns.

Castle Castle Rock, Wyoming. Photograph: Sabine Heinlein

Rock Springs last coalmine closed in 1963. Social clubs shut or became less active. People no longer huddled together where they ran but had to drive out of town to the oil and gas fields and the mine that extracted trona( a mineral used to construct baking soda, glass, detergents and textiles ). Closely dependent on the mineral prizes, the economy seesawed.

For many years, Rock Springs white, working-class people enjoyed an atmosphere of social cohesion that today is hard to find. But as stark differences in wealth are paraded in schools and on social media, members of the general atmosphere has become one of one-upmanship, Alex says. Something has to change. He thinks that Donald Trump will bring the change America needs.

Maybe change has already been under way. In recent years, thanks to its minerals, Sweetwater County has been doing well economically very well, in fact. Between 2000 and 2015 the median household income rose from $54,173 to $81,592, well above the national median of approximately $56,000.

Alexs welding business, too, went well for a while but he was powerless over Danielles expending habits. I wanted things to work out, he says. Thats why I did everything she asked for. When the economy tanked, I would have been able to survive had I treated it like a business and not like her personal piggy bank.

Meanwhile, Danielles son Pete had been sucked into his own pain. Pete was ruined before I came around, Alex says, adding, seemingly ashamed, that an uncle had shown porn to Pete when he was just two or 3 years old. He was distraught over a lot of things, and the biggest one was being rejected by his biological father. He couldnt understand why I wanted something to do with him and his father didnt.

In school, Pete was in constant difficulty. He was bullied for his emo style, and once another kid hit him with a stone, dividing his head open. At home, he was called at and hit by Danielle over the smallest violations. Alex was often away, working 12 -hour changes in the fields.

The counseling and the different medications doctors tried out on Pete didnt seem to do much.

When a young family friend was taken to an institution for emotionally challenged juveniles and Pete saw her improve, he demanded to be taken there, too. According to his sister Melissa, he wanted to be somewhere where he could get one-on-one focus all the time to work out his issues and not have to worry about the family life. But since he wasnt held high-risk, there werent any immediate options available for him.

Melissa, the oldest of Danielles three girls, recollects the tragic day in 2004 clearly. Then 12 years old, she had caught 13 -year-old Pete smoking marijuana with a cousin. She told Danielle. As part of his penalty, he was to sit in his room, with no volumes, publications or video games.

As she recalls the tale, Melissa is calm and thoughtful , not unlike her stepfather. She seems like the various kinds of person who has everything under control, but as you excavate deeper, her struggle emerges.

When Alex came home from work that day Danielle was in bed, like the majority of cases. The first thing he did was check in on Pete. He procured him reading a publication that Melissa had slipped him. Mom said nothing is nothing, Alex said, taking away the publication. He went to light the BBQ to make dinner. It was a warm summertime evening, and Melissa was playing horsey with her three- and five-year-old half-sisters.

Suddenly, Melissa heard Alex hollering. When I strolled over to the bedroom doorway and appeared in, I thought that they were fighting, she remembers. But when Alex laid my brother on the ground, I assured that he wasnt breathing, that he was purple and blue. I ran and woke up my mommy, and she started freaking out, so I grabbed the phone and called 911. Then I grabbed my little sisters and my cousin and I told them that they needed to go outside.

Alex says it couldnt have been more than 15 minutes until he went back to check on Pete. He had hanged himself in his closet.

After breaking through the cloud of the initial shock, Melissa went to see her junior high school counselor. It would be better if she didnt talking here her stepbrothers suicide, she remembers the counselor telling her. Better not devote other children any ideas( she adds that this policy has since changed and counselors are more open and engaged with their own problems now ). Over the next few years, Melissa would ensure several of her schoolmates attempt suicide and succumb of medication overdoses.

Like Danielle, Alex holds himself spiritual but doesnt go to church. For him, organized religion has lost its message. It is not as complicated as people make it out to be, he tells me. Whatever Alexs and Danielles beliefs, the family couldnt “lets get going” of Petes young soul.

After his death, they would sometimes hear their little daughter Ashley giggle in her room. Pete, stop tickling me, she would squeal. Once Alex and Danielle thought they find his white pant-leg duck into the bathroom; another time the couple heard an indefinable growling under the bed. It wasnt a cat, Alex says, locking eyes with me.

The The graveyard where Pete is interred. Photograph: Sabine Heinlein

In the midst of all this, Danielles sister had also become addicted to painkillers. One day, she was detected unconscious in the rain. She had overdosed and reached her head severely. Pill bottles with Danielles name were found in her home. Suffering from memory problems, the sister lost her undertaking before succumbing of an overdose in 2009. It was never determined whether her death was accidental.

The cataclysms didnt be brought to an end. Four years ago, Danielle asked Alex to sit down. She had to tell him something. Their daughter Tammy wasnt his child after all. A DNA exam had confirmed it.

For a week, Alex lay in agony, curled up in a ball. That was the worst ache I ever had, he told me. I didnt want to kill myself, but if my heart was going to stop, Id be OK with that.

It is not that Alex has never tried to access the mental healthcare system. He and Danielle had taken their daughters to household therapy after Ashley, their youngest, had threatened to kill herself in 2012. Alex partially blames himself for Ashleys self-harm ruminations: he was working 12 -hour transformations to make ends meet, and Ashley, who had always been the calm one in the family, wasnt getting enough attention. But family therapy was like World War Three, Alex remembers. All the feelings were coming out it might have been better to leave them all bottled up. The household soon fell out, but the fighting and heartache continued.

For Alex, psychiatric assist never seemed available when he needed it most. The local clinic that serves veterans didnt have an appointment available for another month, and the nearest VA hospital was 160 miles back. Alex didnt want to call the VA suicide hotline because he didnt feeling comfortable having an intimate dialogue about his pain on the phone.

In 2013, Danielle and Alex separated; the kids bided with Danielle, but Alex came around frequently. Soon, Danielles new boyfriend moved in. Alex tried to go back to college but fell out because his daughters implored him to come home.

Danielles health began to deteriorate rapidly. Running back and forth to get medicine from doctors in Utah and Wyoming, she switched from methadone back to OxyContin. She tried to go to rehab in Laramie, Wyoming, but it was too late. Danielle had developed a rare blood clotting disease, diabetes and lung problems. A physician also suggested that she suffered from bipolar disorder, a diagnosis that, merely in hindsight, stimulated sense to her family and friends.

Then Danielle suffered several strokes, with the third one causing mobility and speech problems. She briefly went to physical and speech therapy but quit when she suffered another major bout of depression around the anniversary of Petes death. In 2014, she was diagnosed with early stages of dementia.

In March 2015, a few days after her 43 rd birthday, Danielle died of kidney failing. A couple of months later her mom succumbed of complications related to alcoholism at 69.

In the span of a decade, Alex and the three girls had lost their friend, aunt, mom, and grandmother. A big part of their clan was now gone.

The snowstorm has ended when I drive through the trailer park where Tammy and Ashley live. The black night is partly lighted by a timid half-moon, and the packed snowfall on the streets gleams cold blue. Tammy and Ashley , now 15 and 17, still live in Danielles old mobile home, together with a roommate and “the mens” they continue to call mommies fiance.

Tammy, the 17 -year-old, sports a curly wild mane that matches her extroverted demeanor. She greets me warmly while rapidly wiping kitchen counters. Ashley quietly sits on the beige sofa with the roommate who is cradling an infant the girls agreed to babysit for the night. Across from us is a dusty shelf filled with memorabilia. There are photos of Pete and Danielle, as well as some of her favorite objects, among them a clay ashtray Pete made for his mother in grade school.

Mom said Pete had the darkest blue eyes. Nothing I have ever seen before. As if he was a god, Ashley tells me. A cat and puppies of various sizings squirrel around us. Tammy says she only rescued a pregnant cat whose paws had gotten stuck on the ice. The atmosphere exudes warmth and openness.

Tammy and Ashley both dropped out of school. The girls now do what teenagers do when left to their own devices. They sleep much of the day, watch Tv and go to Walmart for a stroll. Afterwards, over dinner at their favorite diner, they talk about why they didnt like school. They were bullied, they say. Unless you have a certain family name or youre one of the best athletes or super smart-alecky, you get bullied, Alex agrees.

Alex has tried to get Ashley to go to therapy after a friend of hers told him that she was cutting herself. He is concerned. Earlier that day, he received a bellow from a local counselor asking whether Ashley would come back. He cant drag her there, Alex told the counselor.

If Alex knew what his daughters required, hed give it to them. For now, he only wants to give them time to process their loss.

As I am leaving Rock Springs behind me, fiddling with the radio to find something other than pop music, Christian sermons, commercials or Christmas ballads, I think back to what Alex said about his hope that Donald Trump would bring change.

What kind of change does he and his family require? The old coalmining days are long gone. People no longer dance and garden with each other. Parents can no longer rely on their offsprings upward mobility.

The pride of hard, manual labour has faded, and family emergencies rarely bring whole communities together. The mental healthcare system in the US continues to struggle to fill the gaps that the changes have created. In a secluded, sparsely populated region where both mental illness and therapy are met with mistrust stemming from both disgrace and anxiety, those who are down and out often have no place to go.

Danielles name was changed, alongside their lists of her children

In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here